Thursday, 1 May 2008

Birds of the Orient - Hong Kong Food

Stone tablet motif of Shui Hu Ju's menu

The line-up of drafts that call for my attention here reminds me of the somewhat unsettling queue of floating planes I witnessed out my seat window only just recently, each held up in their allocated pocket of airspace as they await their turn to land at one of the busiest of airports. Which is a convenient segue onto my short stay in Hong Kong for work last month, though tight schedules and a lack of local knowledge meant that I barely touched the surface on the broad and exotic culinary opportunities on offer there. Despite this however, I did manage to grab a few interesting meals which on reflection appeared to be dominated by an avian theme. Poultry in its many forms is certainly the most popular meat consumed in the Far East, occasional outbreaks of bird flu notwithstanding.

My first meal of note was a work related function, a full dinner banquet at the Cantonese restaurant of the Royal Park Hotel located deep in the New Territories. An all expenses paid procession of courses so I certainly had no complains! Regrettably each dish was only presented to the table briefly then whisked away to be portioned out for each diner, and I had to be on my best behaviour, so there was little opportunity with the camera. But we had shark fin soup, scallops in XO sauce, salt and pepper fried prawns, whole steamed grouper, beef stir-fried with vegetables, BBQ duck, wok-tossed noodles and something I’d never tried before, claypot braised duck feet and sea-cucumber (beche-de-mer). The sea-cucumber was ho-hum, it was the not unpleasantly gelatinous webbed duck feet that was a new textural experience.
Royal Park Chinese Restaurant, The Royal Park Hotel, 8 Pak Hok Ting Street, Shatin, Hong Kong.

Here’s hoping Donald scrubbed between his toes

Another evening I caught up with some folks for pre-dinner drinks in Central district, Hong Kong’s tourist and business inner-city heart. The maze of upmarket pubs and clubs gave the area away as the premier hangout for the professional expatriate population. Allow me to confirm that any typical ‘Suit’ in a bar there can be just as pretentiously obnoxious as ones you’re likely to brush pelvises against in downtown Little Collins Street, a universal breed to be sure. Dinner post-drinks was at a rather upmarket establishment famous for its specialty Northern Chinese cuisine.

Meaty treasures found in Stewed Beef Rib Wrapped with Lotus Leaf

The restaurant Shui Hu Ju is part of the Aqua Group, a conglomerate of hip restaurants and bars located around the city. SHJ is quite a stylish replica of a traditional Chinese teahouse, discreet entrance marked by period red lanterns and upon entry, dark moody corners with period timber screens and antique furnishings and artefacts to match. We sampled signature dishes such as the Stewed Beef Rib Wrapped with Lotus Leaf, a huge green parcel opened at the table by our waitress to reveal headily spiced meat shredded off the bone to be picked at with our chopsticks at leisure and dipped into a soy vinaigrette with fresh bird’s eye chilli. Then there was a show stopping dish of Deep Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilli, crispy fried pieces of exotic black skinned Silkie chicken poking through a sea of fiery peppers. Biting through the deliciously light crispy coating on the meat, a faint pleasant tone of Chinese medicinal herbs could be detected. For about 10 seconds...then the chilli kicks in and nostrils flare to the sharp fumes while tastebuds are cauterised by the lethal coating of powdered Szechuan pepper and chilli. The trick here was to attempt to recover quickly from the shock and ignore the burning pain. Then when our tastebuds surrendered to a dull throbbing numbness, the buried rich flavours would start registering in the brain receptors once again. Phew, and what a trip it was. We finished to the last piece in nose sniffing and lip trembling satisfaction.
Shui Hu Ju, 68 Peel Street, Central, Hong Kong.

A volcanic plate of Deep Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilli

On my last evening in Honkers, I gathered with a bunch of like-minded colleagues back at Central for a booking at Yung Kee Restaurant, world renowned for its Cantonese-style roasted goose. How famous? Just google the words “roast goose Hong Kong” and you’ll be led directly to Yung Kee, and the exultations of the multitudes that have made pilgrimage there and been touched by ‘the goose’. Our waitress knowingly confirmed that we’ll want to book a whole goose for our meal even before we were properly seated to be handed menus, such was the confidence that the signature dish was what all customers come to the restaurant for…as highlighted by this excerpt from travel writer and expatriated New York native, Daisann McLane in her Hong Kong Blog “Learning Cantonese”.

“...I remember that bird flu period. It was a sad time in Hong Kong. You’d enter Yung Kee, and before the grey-haired bespectacled waiter even handed you a menu, he’d be apologizing: "Sorry, no goose today". And then he would nod, understandingly, so that his customer would not feel any embarrassment or qualms about walking out of the restaurant on the spot. Such honor and candor is rare among restauranteurs.”

Yung Kee's roasted goose, has been listed as one of the 'must-try-before-you-die' food experiences

Anyway the roasted goose at Yung Kee was an impressive bird indeed, succulent and meaty with sweet crispy skin to savour with each mouthful. Compared to the more familiar roast duck, the goose was sweeter, less gamey and much richer. It’s definitely a meal to be shared, as its richness could easily become too much of a good thing. We also sampled Yung Kee’s equally famous preserved century duck eggs that were served as a sulphurously pungent amuse bouche eaten with loads of pickled ginger, followed by Chinese five-spice roasted pigeon, prawns with XO sauce, and several other Cantonese dishes. But the waitress was right, we were there mainly for the goose and did not leave disappointed.
Yung Kee Restaurant, 32-40 Wellington Street, Central, Hong Kong.

Succulent and meaty roasted pigeons - solution for tackling the 'rats of the skies' problem?


stickyfingers said...

Ah beche de Mer - good for what ails ya. When we are in Malaysia next I'm buying the sea cucumber ointment, it heals cuts and blisters in record time with no scarring, just as it heals itself when cut.

That Sichuan dish reminds me of a dish we ate in Tsim Sa Tsui. A similar treatment, but featuring conch meat. The trick is not to touch the chilli's but because the conch was sliced fine it was unavoidable. Sweat broke out, eyes watered. It killed our taste buds and numbed our mouths. We couldn't taste anything for about 12 hours afterwards.

It's been a year since I last ate roast goose in HK and I am craving it something shocking! I wish someone would start doing it here, I really prefer it to roast duck.

The best one we had last time in HK was in Shek O across the road from the beach. My famous uncle took us to an unpretentious little venue where the food was amazing and it just kept coming.

Slightly revolting though was the sycophantic behaviour and kowtowing that my uncle was lapping up from the staff. Highlights were the Goose, Crab and an amazing freshly made silky tofu that arrived in the antique wooden container it was made in.

Love eating in HK, just REALLY hated living there. The cost of living is extortionate and at the time, as a single girl the obnoxious smarmy 'suits' and coke snorting expats in Lan Kwai Fong were the bane of my life. Outside of my relies, the racist locals wouldn't have a bar of me because I'm Eurasian. It was certainly character building though - LOL!

Towser said...

Thanks for your insights Sticky, not too familiar with HK myself, though did manage some nice meals. Would have been keen to explore even more outside the usual 'institutions' recommended by the Tourist Board though. As for roast goose, yes definitely more luscious than duck. Had also wanted to get out to Sham Tseng NT, as recommended by a cab driver for goose but ran out of days. Also badly wanted to try HK roasted suckling pig but coincided with Ching Ming (grave sweeping) Festival and not a pig to be found as they'd all been ordered to feed the ghosts of family ancestors...haha, only in Asia!

As for LKF, it's a tourist trap for sure. Had a supposedly SE Asian hawker style meal at Wing Wah Lane (or Rat Alley; great name!) which was so so and not that cheap. As for the coke snorting and cocktail swilling hangouts in the area, not my scene though had to do short duty there with colleagues I was visiting.

Agnes said...

Looks like you've eaten some great food in HK! That beef rib wrapped in lotus leaves sounds very intriguing.

Jenny said...

Heyyy!! Decided to leave a 'mark' finally in your blog! Hahaa sounds like you've had a great feast while you're in HK! Lots of nice foods there! :) I want to eat the Szechuan chicken! Is it similar with the one in Spicy Fish? ?

Towser said...

Hi Agnes, definitely some great food to be found in HK. Wished I had more local food guides and time to be taken to more of the 'hidden' local places. Yeah that restaurant with the beef in lotus leaf was some trendy place, but with interesting modern takes on traditional dishes.

Welcome Jenny! It's great of you to visit the blog, hope you'll do so often and yes please leave comments! I'm hoping some of my posts here will leave you a little nostalgic for the life you left behind in Melbourne ;) ...hee, or at least some pleasant memories anyway. That Szechuan chicken dish in HK was a little flashier than Spicyfish's version; it had a yummy wispy, crispy coating and a deep herbal ginseng spiciness, plus wasn't floating in as much chilli oil. They both do have that similar blow the top of your head off chilli kick though!